Game Review: "The Evil Within"

“Will you be able to live with yourself knowing what I'm gonna make you do?”

Did you know I totally like the Transformers movies? In fact, I like almost everything Michael Bay has done, even if I’ve missed a couple of his more recent films. I like his way of having fun with filmmaking, and I can definitely share in on that fun from time to time. Not always.

Why am I bringing that up in a review for The Evil Within, a brutally dark psychological horror videogame from Resident Evil mastermind Shinji Mikami?

Because The Evil Within is a fucking Michael Bay movie.

If I’ve kept track of what most people dislike about Bay’s movies, then yeah, this is exactly what would happen if Bay decided to make a torture porn horror movie. It’s a grotesquely big production, it’s ridiculously long, dumb as a bag of hammers, and so over-the-top it almost defeats its own purpose. I had been looking forward to this game for a long time, because most pre-release stuff made it look like a truly brutal thing: a well-designed, scary as hell next-gen horror experience.

And it was that, for about 10 minutes. After the pretty awesome first chapter, which does focus on survival and throws every trick it has at you, this thing went to hell in what has to be the most hilariously unexpected dive I’ve seen a game take. It sure goes where I didn’t expect it to go, from one scene to the next.

Now, I hate it when reviewers, specifically in the medium of videogames, write scathingly negative reviews because it just makes them look like entitled boobs who demand perfection, and won’t settle for less, even if the game’s the product of a hundred artist’s hard work. I really need to avoid coming off that way, but I sincerely don’t remember ever completing a game I’ve disliked as much as I disliked The Evil Within. I generally just stop and play something else, but I had invested so much time and effort into this, I couldn’t just step away. To that end, let me begin by saying the stuff I did like.

Like I said, the production values are insane. This is the most AAA horror game I’ve seen. Because of this, we are treated to many of the phenomenal elements of gameplay that much superior indie horror games could never provide. First off, I need to say that the environments in The Evil Within, especially the ones indoors, are outstanding. The textures of these disgusting locales are incredibly detailed, and thanks to some really, really awesome level design, you can really feel the claustrophobia, and almost smell the rank, putrid places you’re forced to explore.

I swear whenever this game wasn’t being a videogame and didn’t bother with things like story, combat, monsters, and only had you exploring the madhouse, it was top tier stuff. There was one particular chapter halfway through the game that felt like a big nod to Resident Evil, and I loved it. Of course my favorite segments involved decaying, rusted hospital hallways (shades of—or rather greatly fucking inspired by—Silent Hill), and it sucks that you were often taken out of those to explore bland and boring locations like a forest, a brightly lit castle right out of Uncharted 3, or a brightly lit destroyed city.

Character models notwithstanding (as always, we just can’t create realistic looking people, and two main characters in here are particularly bland), the graphics in general were superb. Yes, there were some big problems with texture loading times (at least on PS4), and water/blood still looks a bit poor, but the rest was aces. Light effects added some great drama to the exploration, and those were the parts that made the game pretty enjoyable.

Also, though the story is nonsensical grade-z garbage, I kinda liked how it tried to do something greatly epic with its ideas, but didn’t succeed. There were a couple of moments when it used some seriously surreal and imaginative visual devices to weird you out and they really work. Of course most of the time the surrealism was so over the top it felt like a parody of psychological horror and not psychological horror. Silent Hill (especially 2) was amazing because it was so low-key and subtle. This game’s final segment involved a Godzilla-like monster, giant floating brains, a sky made of eyeballs and a rocket launcher. Of course that wasn’t the only ridiculous set piece, but you get the idea.

This is why I never really connected with the Resident Evil games when I was such a huge fan of Silent Hill. Shinji Mikami doesn’t know what to do with anything even slightly complex, thematically speaking. You just know that he was going for an exploration of madness and tragedy here (again, like Silent Hill), but instead of subtle horror or drama, he just literally had many shots of brains covered in barbed wire. That’s how he decided to handle this kind of theme.

And what sucks is that the game just fails there as well. Maybe I’ve gotten used to the much more powerful horror in games like Amnesia, Outlast, Five Nights at Freddy’s or Silent Hills: PT, but I swear to gawd that there was not one single bit in this game that was even remotely scary. Yes, there were intense bits, but mostly because the game is pretty hard and you don’t want to die. As far as horror, of any kind, there was none. Not even jump scares, which leads me to believe that he really was going for something more profound. It doesn’t help that the creature design isn’t very good at all. Most monsters are your basic zombies, avec some mutilation. Some others are the rather typical fleshy ‘body horror’ creatures right out of The Thing. The rest are yet more attempts at creating a new Pyramid Head or Nemesis. Again, they are not scary, just threatening in-game.

The game is hard, by the way. I played it in Survival difficulty (highest available on a first playthrough) and more than once I was tempted to change it to Easy; it’s just that frustrating and unfair. My problem now isn’t really the difficulty because that isn’t a flaw in itself, but that the difficulty comes from poor and lazy design. Half of the game’s dynamics are borderline useless (like the pistol), or 100% useless (melee damage which, trust me, even fully upgraded, doesn’t do shit; you might as well be hitting the enemies with your flaccid dick). The Evil Within’s idea of making it hard almost feels like Shinji Mikami was high as hell and pissed the fuck off with the world.

“Yeah, throw him in some tiny pit and make him fight ten—no, fuck it, thirty enemies. Yeah and some of them will have explosive rounds and a ridiculous amount of health! Yeah and at the end put two of the easier bosses for good measure. Don’t forget to add a shitload of hidden traps there, the kind he’ll need to discover only by dying in them. Oh and fuck, what if he gets there with too many bullets? Okay none of the enemies drop shit. No, he can’t skip it by running away, and he’ll need to turn a valve that takes two minutes to turn. On and it’s all a race against time. With spinning blades and fire. Yeah that looks about right.”

-Shinji Mikami, upon designing every area of the game.

I don’t think I had died this much in any game ever. It was all so unfair and frustrating, at one point it was almost funny. I’ll tell you this though, no game had ever forced me to be this efficient and intelligent with limited resources. There were scenes when I felt spr l33t because I couldn’t waste a single bullet or make the slightest mistake. I’m no level designer, but I know it takes a lot of brain to create scenes that are very challenging, but not impossible. There were a couple of really awesome boss fights (both times you fought Laura come to mind), but the scenes that were particularly tough only involved you fighting an absurd amount of enemies.

On to what disappointed me the most: the story. I don’t remember playing a game so completely devoid of plot, ever. Even Final Fantasy 1 had a logical flow of events, and a semblance of narrative. I’m not complaining about the way the game avoids really giving away much in terms of explanation, because that’s a Japanese thing I actually love; I’m literally talking about the actual game events. No sequence ever seemed to logically follow the previous. You might be in a castle, then move on to a hospital, then you’re in a forest, then back in the hospital. Every chapter here can be shuffled and rearranged, and the game experience wouldn’t change. Nothing you do in one segment carries out to the next, except for Sebastian going “Wow this is super weird. I wonder if I’m losing my mind even though it’s become exceedingly obvious that yes I fucking have.”

Which brings me to the awful dialogue. Other than that awesome line I quoted at the top, it was amazing how poorly written the characters are. These idiots feel like puppets for an unfinished story. Both of Seb’s cliché cop friends, for instance, had absolutely no role I could discern in the story. There was one scene late in the game that I could tell was supposed to be dramatic, but I might as well have been looking at little kids playing tag. There was a point in which a character sees his brother transform and die in front of him and doesn’t give the lesser half of a shit. Why were they trying to include drama if they wouldn’t bother with the most basics of human emotion?

As for the dialogue, maybe something was lost in translation (including the title; in Japan it was called Psychobreak, which is infinitely cooler), but nothing being said or done here made any sense. Ruvik’s recordings in particular were painful to hear, and sounded more like emo poetry. Not even Jackie Earl Hayley’s voice could save it. Every other voice actor was phoning it in. Whoever played Leslie should quit acting forever.

Anyway, what exactly is the story being told in this game? A gruff one-dimensional stock protagonist (who obviously suffered a tragedy in his past and then became an alcoholic because writing is hard) visits a hospital where some fucked up things went down, then a lot of weirdness happens. That’s it. There was no connection between Seb and the madness going on, so it all feels entirely arbitrary, and not “psychologically” effective at all.  It was just a medley of gory weirdness. Some of the weirdness was pretty cool to look at, and I know there were some creative ideas behind the madness, but if there can’t be emotional resonance when it’s all so one-dimensional.

I’m also pretty disappointed by the lack of puzzles, a key element of the genre. Instead of such an absurd amount of enemy battle royales, I would’ve loved to have more brain teasers. What few there were were pretty awesome, if a bit too easy, so I wish there had been more.

A lot of people say that Michael Bay’s problem is how he grabs stuff that should be fun, then takes it so far, he basically ruins it. That’s what The Evil Within does with violence. This is probably the goriest mainstream game I’ve played, with literal rivers of blood, graphic dismemberments, horrible kills, torture scenes, and more. It’s all taken to the point of bad taste and eventually just felt like they were trying too hard to push the envelope of videogame and horror violence. The extreme amount of gore served absolutely no purpose because once more, it was becoming a parody of itself. A shame, really; it could’ve been pretty brutal, had they not tried to go to eleven.

Hell, some scenes involved huge shootouts, car chases, explosions, and zombies shooting stationary .50 cals. I swear I’ve seen Hollywood action movies with fewer high-octane set pieces. My Michael Bay comparison isn’t off-base.

There are too many reasons why I’m not playing The Evil Within again, despite a promising “New Game +” mode, but the biggest one is that it just wasn’t fun. After its incredibly long runtime, all I could think was “I just need to finish this thing so I can go and change it for something else”. I didn’t even care about how the story would wrap because, as I expected, it didn’t really solve any questions—mainly because I suspect there isn’t really a story: just a framing device to give the designers a sandbox.

For me, The Evil Within failed in almost everything I like about horror videogames. It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t fun, and it didn’t have a story to tell. But hell, if you like a challenge, and don’t mind ultra poor writing and a very, very juvenile approach to horror that could be described as torture porn, you might have fun.

At least it gives you value for your buck. Really, this game is fucking long, yo.
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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